on 26 October 2012
Of all the First World War pilot memoirs I've read over the years, this is one of the best. Arthur Gould Lee relates how he managed to wrangle a transfer in 1916 from his army unit to the Royal Flying Corps, where he soon discovered, flight training was haphazard and often dangerous. Most of the instructors under whom he trained (many of whom had seen active service in France) were unskilled in imparting the skills of flying to their pupils. Oftentimes, the expectation was for the pupil to get in the cockpit, remembering the few bits of advice passed on by the instructor, and get on with it! In Lee's words: "There was no instruction technique, no standard method. Nobody could explain in simple, practical terms how a plane was piloted. There was no communication between instructor and pupil in the air. It was obvious to us all that instructors should have been taught their job. There were competent instructors at the civil flying schools at Hendon and Brooklands, who were engaged mostly in teaching novice pilots to get the R.A.C. [Royal Aero Club] brevet, but these should long ago have been assembled into a school to give crash courses to R.F.C. [Royal Flying Corps] novice instructors."
Fortunately, for Lee, he had a patient instructor who freely gave him advice and helped make him a competent pilot. Furthermore, as if by a stroke of fate, Lee had fallen ill, which delayed his departure to France for several weeks. Once he got well, Lee put in some extra flying time on the Sopwith Pup, a fighter he later flew in combat over the Western Front during the spring and summer of 1917. Later his squadron converted to the redoubtable, though tricky, Sopwith Camel. (Lee served in France from May 1917 to January 1918, surviving numerous close calls.)
Lee also goes on to shed light on his duties in Britain as a flight instructor up to the Armistice. Taken in sum, this book (originally published in 1969 when Lee was in his early 70s) aptly sums up a pilot's perspective of his life in war and peace. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
on 19 July 2016
The final chapter of this book is a startlingly-relevant comment on the outcome of World War One, from a personal and a political viewpoint. In this, the centenary year of The Battle of The Somme, Arthur Gould Lee shares with us his thoughts and makes some comparisons that would be considered well-informed and remarkably-relevant today. Arthur Gould Lee concisely states here, from 1968, much of what the media have taken the first-half of 2016 to hyperbolise.
Arthur Gould Lee is Captain James Bigglesworth. W.E.Johns tried to throw us off the scent by ensuring that Captain James Bigglesworth, 'Biggles', never went near a Sopwith Pup; indeed he told us that Biggles represented no single WW1 pilot; but, read this book and you will quickly realise that there is much of Arthur Gould Lee in the person whom we know as Biggles. The tactics, the repeated crashing in the front-line trenches, the descriptions of survival in situations where his opponents held every advantage; even his musings on his prospects and his lucky past, whilst in the air; these are all so strikingly similar to our boyhood hero.
on 7 July 2016
This man writes beautifully. He is a great pilot and historian and is able to put you in the seat with the air in your face and bullets cracking nearby.
His description of having to urinate whilst on a high-altitude,2 hour flight is accurate I can assure you having had similar experiences during the latter stage of a five-hour flight in a glider !!
The book compliments beautifully (without repetition) his other work "No Parachute" which I read first.
The author continued his career in aviation and when you read of the near-misses he experienced you can see how luck and skill go hand in hand in air warfare.
This book should appeal to pilots and historians.
on 2 April 2014
A fantastic read from start to finish.
Many times in reviews of flying books you will read "Puts the reader in the cockpit..." This book really does as you read of Arthur's journey from training to frontline and back to training again, only this time as an instructor .
The book ends with Arthur Gould Lee's poignant return to the former battleground some 50 years later.
To paraphrase another well worn line, if you only read one book on air combat in World War I, make it 'Open Cockpit'
For me it just has the edge over 'Sagittarius Rising'
By a curious coincidence, the author left 46 Sqn in Jan 1918, just before V.M.Yeates joined it, in Feb '18. Yeates was the author of the semi-autobiographical novel Winged Victory. Yeates was a civilian volunteer who went back to civvie street; Lee, seemingly, was a professional soldier. He remained in the RAF after the war, and eventually retired in 1946 with the rank of Air Vice-Marshal (the equivalent of a Major-General).
The contrast between the two books could hardly be more marked. Yeates' book was written in the 30's, the year before he died of TB. It is very much of the Disenchantment years; disillusioned, embittered, including a lot of cynical philosophising that may not have been present at the time. This book, written in the late 60's, is very matter of fact, a memoir of the author's time from learning to fly to his time, just post-war, teaching others to fly.
Of the two, this is the better. There is some very pointed comment about the decisions made further up the chain of command, but mostly it is a commentary free of bitterness. It is also very self-effacing. Both men were accredited "aces"; neither boast of their own exploits. If you want an emotionally coloured impression of how WWI's fliers may have felt, then Winged Victory is well worth reading. But if you want a dispassionate account of what it was like to be a WWI fighter pilot, you will struggle to find a better book than this.
on 12 April 2013
This book is a very well-written and an enthralling read. One gets the impression that he is a thinking man's war hero. Yes he went up and faced the enemy in mortal combat in the lonely skies, often, as he says, pitted effectively on his own again one or more adversary, and in an inferior flying machine in terms of performance and fire power (in his underpowered and under-armed Sopwith Pup vs. German Albatros D-III and later D-V aircraft), but one gets the impression that he does not enjoy killing his fellow creatures. Only his skill, courage and wits and the manoeuvrability of his small craft, and especially the fact that he could reach a higher altitude than the enemy planes, saved him many and oft from an early grave, as was the fate of 9,000 or so allied pilots in the First World War. The decades since this brutal and tragic conflict are quickly peeled away by his sage and well-chosen words, and the reader feels as if one is with him, seeing what he saw first hand. But gladly, we are not with him. He is both 'down to earth' (several times literally) and realistic and commented at the time on the stubbornness and conservatism of the RFC High Command who wouldn't even allow its brave young pilots parachutes - yet balloon observers were allowed them. Each pilot lived very much from day to day, hour to hour and sometimes when in a dogfight, from second to second. However good a pilot you were (and Arthur Lee one day meets the Red Baron himself), any stray bullet could have been yours, and all the pilots were worried about going down in flames, or nearly as bad, being captured in enemy territory, just a few miles away. Luck played a huge part in any pilot's chances of going home for tea. Lee reflects on the stupidity of it all, and that the German fighters were very much like the allied ones: brave men who had been ordered to do a job, an unpleasant yet exciting one, and it was best not to consider too deeply one's role, just get on with it. I would say that all young men and women who are interested in what their grandfathers and great grandfathers did in the fledgling air forces of Britain, France and Germany are well advised to read it. Only at the end does the author return, after 50 years, to the battlefields of northern France and Belgium and reflect on, and lament the passing of, the vast throng of fallen servicemen of many countries, including Britain and Germany. He feels lonely and, one almost gets the impression, believes that he should be there lying amongst them, a strange and perhaps understandable whimsy. Fortunately for him he survived, and went on to become an Air Vice Marshall in the RAF, retiring in 1946.
on 23 February 2015
Arthur Gould Lee was credited with seven German airplanes shot down in World War I, flying Sopwith Pups and Sopwith Camels in the Royal Flying Corps 46th Squadron, from May 1917 to December 1917, then reallocating to England to be a flying instructor until the end of the war. He died int 1975, aged 80, but he wrote this book in the late part of his life, already in the seventies.
Curiously, you will not read about a single one of his victories here. He mentions only one or two briefly, without any details. All the air combat that he mentions with details are inconclusive ones, although in a lot of them he receives bullets. Also curiously is the fact that he mentions over and over again the terrible disadvantage that his Squadron was in flying Pups against the Albatross D-III e D-V, but he or his companions are never shot down by the Germans! The time when they suffer the most is when they fly low level strafing Camels. In this aspect, this is very similar to Victor Yeate's accounting in the marvelous WINGED VICTORY, when he and his companions seem to not loose a lot of sleep over the ability of their German contenders, but worry mainly about low level strafing work!
Arthur Lee was one of the few men already married when he joined the Squadron, and flew with care and without taking unnecessary risks, but displaying enormous courage and determination. The book is good, but it seems fry at a lot of times, and lack any technical details, There is no one single paragraph about the transition to Camels, for example. In one moment they are flying Pups, in the next he is seated in a Camel.
on 30 April 2014
You almost experience the discomfort, stress and trauma experienced by pilots in WW 1 flying, by modern standards, what amounted to glorified kites. There would be very few modern pilots who would want to be engaged in a dog fight at 17,000 to 20,000 feet, sitting in an open cockpit without an oxygen supply. Also, their lot was further compounded by not having parachutes. A compelling read told in a straightforward way and not at all maudling, Not enough has been said about the contribution they made and their bravery in taking the war to the Germans. An enlightening read
on 26 August 2013
This is an understated, I believe accurate account of Lee's experiences. I read it immediately after 'Wings of Glory' and welcomed its calm, factual but touching account of flying on the Western Front. He was clearly very lucky - as he says repeatedly - but also very skilled.
on 19 February 2013
Arthur Gould Lee has an excellent writing style. Considering the era he was born into, it is very accessible to a modern reader. He has a way of actually 'putting you in the cockpit'. It makes you realise how brave those young pilots were and how much luck played in their survival. I can't wait for my copy of 'No Parachute' to arrive.